Vintage photography blog
The Pros & Cons of delving into vintage photography
It’s fun If you are a keen photographer.
Doesn’t matter if you are shooting digital these days.
Escaping the ‘point and shoot’ of modern digital and
IPhonography is a reason for doing this.
The over populated world of digital can become really boring.
A step back into the past can re-awaken your interest in making pictures.
Delivering a slower more thinking approach to your photography.
Using a 70s rangefinder loaded with black and white film is exciting.
Aperture, shutter speed, focus, shoot, but you really don’t know what you have until developing time.
The average good quality, Japanese made 70s rangefinder is not expensive, Canon, Minolta, Olympus
These cameras, despite their relatively low cost these days are well made, solid all metal construction.
If you are careful with your search an ‘as new’ camera can be found for a few hundred dollars.
Your journey into photography’s past could lead you into the darkroom – read our developing black and white film at home blog
If looked after your Vintage Rangefinder is an investment.
Framing the shot is slower as manual rangefinder focus is the norm for these cameras .
Some are aperture priority (semi auto) others full manual for shutter and aperture.
An understanding of photography’s basic rules is necessary – read up on the ‘sunny 16’ rule.
It is best to physically handle and check the model you are considering.
Lenses, rangefinder and light meter should be in good working condition but don’t expect the film chamber light seals to have survived 40 odd years.
The light seals will need replacing – not a hard job, but finicky. If you don’t do it then the camera will disappoint as film may be fogged with light intrusion. We can help with seal replacement.
Lens fungus can be hard to detect and very hard to remove. If present, or mentioned in the description don’t buy the camera. It usually means the camera has been in less than ideal storage for some time. Fungus growth on the lens will compromise images.
A little lens dust is to be expected and generally not an issue.
Olympus XA Rangefinder
If you’re an industrial designer you will have admired the XA. It is everything it should be , but you get more than what you see. The little XA is very small and is the smallest practical 35mm camera I have come across. The Rollei 35’s are smaller, great to look at, zone focus, not rangefinder but are impractical for any quick picture taking. The XA is everything the Rollei isn’t. It is small, light, has rangefinder focus, very easy and quick to ‘shutter ready’ status. Being aperture priority the XA sets an appropriate shutter speed according to manual aperture selection via the slide lever to the left of the lens - maximum aperture is 2.8, stopping down to f22. Also a delight to behold. The only downside to this comparison - the Olympus is plastic, the Rollei is metal.
A triumph of design, simple and ergonomically near perfect. It’s clamshell sliding dust barrier fully encloses the lens, viewfinder and rangefinder windows when closed. The body exterior is nicely rounded with no protrusions to get caught on pocket linings, camera bags or key rings. Shutter ready in seconds. Aperture priority exposure gives the photographer depth of field control and if you are out and about on an average day shooting at F11 or thereabouts the only adjustment is focus which is a double image, coupled rangefinder adjusted with a small lever just below the lens. The shutter release is extremely light, taking a little getting used to but once mastered, comes to be fully appreciated for lack of camera shake which can be the result of the heavier pressure needed on the shutter release of some other cameras. The very light electronic shutter trigger which minimises camera shake takes a little getting used to, but after a few inadvertent activations, due care becomes habitual. The XA’s lens is focal length 35mm with maximum aperture F2.8 being made up of 6 elements in 5 groups. It is an inner focusing lens meaning front and rear elements are fixed.
Unnoticed by passersby the XA is a great little film camera to have with you all the time, used by street shooting pros.
The XA’s clamshell design is it’s main secret. When it is in closed position everything is off, the lens is completely protected and the rounded shape fits neatly into most pockets or small bags. Only 100mm long and 40mm thick weighing in at 220g. Slide the clam open and you are the sneakiest street shooter ever as no serious photographer would sport a camera so small. Lets talk about the neat F Zuiko lens which has a focal length of 35mm, is sharp and bright. . Close focusing and a back lighting exposure compensation function adds to the unexpected extras. The lever on the left underside has 4 functions - +1.5 exposure compensation, battery check, self timer and when in this mode it acts as a camera support so the camera can support itself on any suitable flat surface. . Film speed is adjusted via a very small lever immediately below the lens 25 – 800 ASA. The rangefinder focus lever is directly below this. The viewfinder is clear and bright with the rangefinder patch easily followed as it adjusts to focus. Power comes from 2 x SR44 batteries which are readily available at supermarkets, chemists and photo shops and they last for ages. The A11 flash unit fits snugly to the right side and screws securely into place. The flash has it’s own dedicated single AA battery. The XA was followed by the XA1, 2, 3 and 4 but none of these followers are rangefinders and in some cases lacked the ingenious features found in the original XA.
Price range for the XA is large and they can found as low as $20.00 but these may not be in great condition. For an immediately useable example in perfect condition with A11 flash unit, presentation box and printed instruction book expect to pay NZ$250 – NZ$400. You will keep using this camera as they are so nice to handle and use. The results aren’t bad either.
Canon Canonet Rangefinder
Made in Japan by Canon through the 1960s, the Canonet offers the vintage photographer an image making instrument which needs no power other than that provided to the light meter by the selenium cell and finger power to press the shutter button and wind the film. Quite reassuring. No batteries to suddenly give out or electronics to mysteriously fade out. One of these was my Father’s pride and joy accompanying us on our European early 1970s OE. I have this camera today and it still delivers 47 years later.
It is an uncluttered camera able to shoot full manual or auto The auto settings are termed by Canon, EE photography, or Electric Eye. With Aperture ring set to auto and the correct film speed selected the shutter speed ring is turned to select 'indoor, cloudy or sunny' . These settings are selected against the film speed lever as the setting marker. To achieve the same result an appropriate film speed can be selected using the shutter speed ring on which 1/500 down to B can be selected. Move the aperture ring away from auto to manually select aperture and the Canonet is fully manual. If moving the aperture ring out of auto mode this requires the release of a small lever halfway down the left side of the lens housing.
The fixed lens is excellent glass with a focal length of 45mm and maximum aperture of 1.9. The smooth rangefinder focus ring makes bringing the contrasty viewfinder patch into line, easy. Shutter speed and aperture rings are nicely spaced and have finger grips. Easy to adjust while holding the camera. The supplied lens hood fits snugly down over the lens when not in use and reverses to fit over the outer black lens edge when deployed.
Unusually the film winder is placed on the underside of the body with the top third of the lever able to be raised for grip. This system works quite well and soon becomes 2nd nature after a few rolls of film. The film door release is also on the underside to the left requiring a lever and button to be activated, preventing accidental door opening with film loaded. The film loads from right to left. Light seals are likely to need attention.
One downside is the tripod mount which is placed on the extreme left making the camera unbalanced on a marginal tripod. Obviously placed to make way for the film winder.
Compared to todays’ digital menagerie it is heavy at around 700 grams and quite large at 140mm long, 55mm deep including lens and 85mm high, including the film winder. It is solid and feels like it will last another 47 years. The dedicated Eveready black genuine leather case is one of the best of it’s era. With it’s supple leather and secure stitching camera protection is guaranteed.
The first class images this camera can produce, the absence of battery worry and the very affordable price – around NZ$90.00 - $150 should land a clean working example - make this Canonet from the 60s a worthwhile camera bag addition.
Yashica Electro 35 GSN Rangefinder
From the 1970s Yashica produced this diamond. The GSN version has a satin chrome finish while the GTN is black. Personal preference, but I think the satin finish is classy. The lens is even more classy being fast at f1.7 and normal focal length at 45mm. Dubbed a DX Color Yashinon. The Electro is all solid metal , weighing in at 3/4/kg which to photographers from last century conveys a good feel in the hand, but to those used to tiny 21st century digital or Iphonography would seem quite a lump to carry around. I love it so you know where I sit!
The GSN is really an auto camera with the shooter fixing the aperture according to conditions and composition and the GSN setting an appropriate shutter speed. Over (red) and under (yellow) lights set into the top plate indicate over or under exposure if the shutter speed is over the max of 1/500th or under the minimum 1/30. If over, stop down a little until within the GSN’s range. The cadmium Sulphide light cell is not located within the lens housing so it is quite possible to shoot with the lens cap on – very annoying! Leave the shutter uncocked and the shutter release to the L (locked) position as this saves the battery when not in use.
The shutter is so quiet, if there is other ambient noise about, you can wonder if it has tripped. Don’t worry it has. The focus ring is very smooth which makes matching the rangefinder patch easy. Film speed settings must be set manually on the top plate dial. Usual film speeds are all accommodated.
The battery needed is 6V and the original mercury 6V is, of course no longer available. No problem if you purchase a purpose made adapter from ‘Yashica Guy’ which allows modern alkaline 6V batteries to be used. These are obtainable in most electronics and camera stores. There are other less convenient options, but for the US$17 involved the battery adapter is an investment.
Light seals will need replacing in a camera of this vintage.This is not a hard job but it is precise so be prepared and take your time. US Camera offers precisely cut camera specific seal kits. Much better to order these than buy the foam in sheet form and attempt to cut your own. It will never be precise enough. A sound working example which will still need light seals, can be found between NZ$160 - $220, although these classy rangefinders are becoming increasingly popular.
My Voigtlander Bessa R3A Rangefinder with Nokton 40mm f1.4
Now this is a seriously nice camera, coming from Cosina in Japan which took over the legendary Voigtlander name some years ago. Cosina also make the Voigtlander lenses. The camera bodies were discontinued in 2013. The Voigtlanders have a lot to recommend them with the main event being an M mount with interchangeable lenses these being Voigtlander's own, or Leica or Zeiss. All beautiful investment glass. The bodies are a solid, all metal build, finished in matt black. A good feel in the hand with a worthwhile extra buy being the genuine Voigtlander eveready case, of which the bottom half gives good protection while out on the job. Skimpy viewfinders, like that on the Contax G2, are not that enjoyable to use so the R3A's, lifesize 1:1 finder is a revelation and encourages me to continue clicking the shutter. The framelines, which appear in the viewfinder match Voigtlander's lens offerings at 40/50/75 and 90. I am shooting with the 40mm Nokton just now and looking to add the 75mm to the lens arsenal soon. The Voigtlander lenses are very smooth operators, well damped with positive detents on the aperture ring.
The 'A' , on the speed selector ring, stands for automatic and enables aperture priority shooting with the camera selecting the appropriate shutter speed. Full manual is also possible, setting the aperture on the lens and the shutter speed on the camera body, then following the exposure information displayed in the viewfinder. This shows quite low down in the finder window and can be tricky to pick up until you get used to it. The electronic shutter needs battery power to release so the R3A is not a fully manual camera like it's cousin the R3M (manual) which can still be shot without battery power. I don't worry too much about this as the Voigtlanders take 2 of the common LR44 (or longerlasting SR44) button batteries. You can get these easily at the supermarket. The older 70s rangefinders are a lot harder to power up as their batteries are either discontinued or very hard to find. These classic, well made rangefinders are quite sought after now with a resurgence in film photography popularity. A lightly used body and Nokton 40mm will be approaching NZ$1800 and like good art, are genuine investments.
Shooting vintage - with a Minolta 7sII
Finding, buying, owning and using vintage cameras is certainly not for everyone being at various times, frustrating, disappointing and expensive. That's the downside and if you are prepared for and expect these aspects of the vintage camera world then the upside is unlimited. I never buy vintage cameras for display, only to use, therefore my purchase criteria is particularly strict. If you are fortunate enough to spot a 7SII in a camera store and can handle the camera then you can check the lens for clarity. Set the shutter speed to B and the aperture to f1.7, open the back, cock and fire the shutter. The shutter remains open allowing a good check of the lens. A little dust is not usually a problem, however scratches and fungus are not acceptable in a camera you wish to use. These little beauties have become sought after in recent years with prices rising considerably to an average now between US$250 - $420, for a working example in good condition.
I am not talking here about the earliest cameras, but in particular good quality Japanese fixed lens rangefinders made from the mid 1970s that are usable today and can produce images way ahead of many expensive DSLRs. As you know final image quality is most leveraged off 2 vital inputs; 1) photographic skill and 2) quality of the glass. 1, is what it is and can be improved with practice but 2 is fixed absolutely. If a poorer quality lens is used then the image will always be compromised in terms of 'ultimate' quality. The image may be OK, perfectly usable and fit for its purpose but it will never be the best record of that 'moment in time'. The Minolta 7SII, pictured, first appeared in 1977 and is one of the more affordable and well made mass produced Japanese rangefinders. It's biggest claim to fame is the 40mm f1.7 lens. Minolta has an enviable reputation for manufacturing high quality lenses and this Rokkor is no exception - sharp and fast, achieving excellent contrast with an ideal focal length for general photography. The large f1.7 aperture gives the 7SII the sought after low light abilities. The bright lens combined with a reasonably fast film enables sharp handheld shots in light challenged situations. It is also small, at only 115mm long, therefore easily and discretely carried about. But what are the downsides to this camera. Except for substitute batteries there are actually none if you have managed to obtain a working example in good condition. The 7SII was originally powered by a mercury 1.3v cell - no longer available due to the mercury content. The best replacement is the Wein zinc-air 1.35v; code:MRB675. These are available on line from micro-tools.com at a current price of US$6 each. If the commonly available 1.5v alkaline is used the meter will operate but will not be accurate. The correct Wein cell provides stable voltage and does not require any meter adjustment. If not activated a shelf life of up to 10 years is possible, but once loaded into the camera, keep the lens cap on when not in use, as the 7SII has no dedicated 'off' switch which means when the lens cap is off the cds light cell is always drawing current, slowly draining the battery. No light falling on the cell effectively turns the camera off. When loading film, carefully check that the film leader is well engaged on the takeup spool as there is no film wind indicator beyond the rotation of the film holder spool and that this is not rotating can go unnoticed for a few shots. The frame counter moves on 1 frame every time the shutter is cocked regardless of whether film is actually winding or not. Set to A (auto) with shutter at 125, street shooting is quick and easy. The rangefinder focus system can be a bit fiddly if you are going to refocus each and every shot. It is better to have the focus preset to a usual distance for street photography - say 15' and estimate your distance from the subject rather than fiddle around with the focus. When your subject changes from street to landscape then adjust the focus to infinity. Finally don't forget to set the film speed for the film loaded 25 - 800 ASA.
Contax G2 autofocus rangefinder
The G2 is a classic film 35mm auto focus rangefinder - a joy to own and shoot, although not truly vintage, being manufactured from 1996 and discontinued in 2005.
The beautifully made titanium body will last a lifetime and combined with the suite of especially designed Carl Zeiss lenses, here is a combination which will rival the very best photography gear available, both in handling and image results. The 'techno price rot' which affects digital equipment is completely absent, with a well maintained Contax kit holding it's value strongly. A G2 body is now US$900-1500 with the lenses ranging from US$300 for a 35mm to $1500 for the 21mm. You will never regret the purchase.
The G2 was manufactured by Japan's Kyocera who have produced a very precise photographic instrument. The Zeiss lens partners are 16mm f8, 21mm f2.8, 28mm f2.8, 35mm f2, 45mm f2, and 90mm f2.8. There is also a 35-70mm zoom which is a slow lens at f3.5 -5.6 at the long end. They are all superbly sharp with exceptional colour rendition. I have the 28, 35 and 90mm, with the 28mm being my most useful. For architectural work I would like the 21mm - one day soon I hope. 5 years on (2016 now) and I have just acquired the 21mm with it's external viewfinder. Very nice indeed. You can see the first outing here.
The aperture is set off the lens and shutter set from the outer wheel on top of the body. Choose the appropriate speed or set to auto. Shooting manual, over/under arrows appear in the viewfinder, prompting shutter speed or aperture reset. On auto you set the appropriate aperture for the light conditions and the camera selects the matching speed. If the speed selected is too low for hand holding, choose a larger aperture and the G2 will adjust accordingly. The G2 viewfinder is the only negative feature, being rather skimpy, however it cleverly adjusts the view according to which lens is on board. Even though the viewfinder is not 'through the lens' like an SLR it appears so.
When the G2 is set to manual focus this is adjusted via the wheel on the body left front. Loading film is a cinch - simply pull the film leader across to the red line on the right close the back and the film automatically advances to the first frame, even with power off. The film speed is automatically detected on DX film. Film speed can also be set manually via the ISO button and the manual focus wheel. If non DX film is being used, or you want to change the film speed from the speed of the film loaded, power up the camera, press the ISO button for 1.2 seconds or more, the film speed display will flash then turn the manual focus wheel until the desired film speed or DX appears. If non DX film is used and the ISO is not manually set, the G2 will set the speed to ASA100. Bear in mind that if the ISO has been manually set and DX film is then loaded the film speed will remain on the manual setting selected until the ISO setting has been reset to DX.
The G2 has 2 focusing systems, endowing it with a 'see in the dark' ability. This is achieved using an active infrared beam working to a distance of about 3 metres aided a moment later by a passive system, requiring at least some light, working over a greater distance. The auto focus can become a little confused if the photographer is not paying attention. With the focus selector set to SAF ensure the focus selection frame is settled on the object that will be the subject of the image. Quite often the focus system will select something in the image background and this will be the focus point, throwing out of focus the actual image subject. It is seconds only for the photographer to confirm exactly what the focus system has selected by checking the rangefinder graph in the viewfinder - if this tells you Mr Focus has selected something 5 metres away and your subject is 3.5 metres distant, there is something wrong - and when confirmed depress the focus lock button, but worthwhile as blurry images are not particularly useful and deny the beauty the Zeiss lenses are capable of.
For long distance night photography the best choice is manual focus set to infinity. The 90mm lens can be problematic with focusing and several subject aquisition attempts may have to be made, especially in bright conditions. The viewfinder is unique in that it zooms according to the lens mounted and auto corrects for parallax. The viewfinder is a little on the small side but is almost SLR like in it's capabilities.
These are not simple cameras, having lots of electronic features with very few user repairs possible. If a G2 is described as a bargain there is a reason for it and its only use is probably spare parts or a bookcase ornament.
Buy from a reliable source which has a no hassle return policy and be prepared to pay a realistic price for a mint example. A G2 body should be NZ$900 - $1500 and lenses (various focal lengths) NZ$350 - $850.
Being an auto rangefinder the G2 depends on batteries - 2 x CR2. These are usually obtainable in good camera stores or online and last a long time, but when they start to fail there is really no warning - just certain features stop working or work intermittently. Always carry a spare pair.
I use Ilford Delta 100 Black & White or Fuji colour reversal (positive) film - usually Velvia 100 or Provia 400 and achieve marvellous results with these.
Olympus SP 35 rangefinder
It arrived a week ago and what a beauty. I have been looking for another of these after selling my original SP last year. Having experienced several Olympus rangefinders - RC, DC, LC and XA I am keen to shoot the SP and view the results from the reportedly outstanding lens for myself. This lens is a G Zuiko 42mm f1.7, 7 element gem offering a 'normal' focal length and fast f1.7 aperture. I am expecting fantastic low light results. The SP is good and solid to hold in the hand measuring L13xH8xW7 (including lens). Of course not pocketable yet easily accessible from an unobtrusive shoulder bag. With no battery there is no metering but the camera, being all mechanical, can still shoot - just use the sunny 16 rule. The SP came to market in the early 70s and was very sophisticated and well made. 40 years later, a well cared for example is as new. The spot metering ability and the G lens are what makes the SP stand out with the meter able to operate even in manual mode, provided there is a battery. There is no on/off,with the meter on whenever the cell is exposed to light, draining the battery. It is a good idea to keep the SP in its case when not in use so saving the battery. Although just running the meter, the 625 Wein cells do last quite some time. Don't forget to remove the lens cap as the meter is located to the right of the viewfinder therefore not blacked out by a lens cap. It is a great disappointment to have many shots of the inside of the lens cap!
Compared with the little RC where a lens cap effectively shuts the meter off. Even the earlier LC which also has the 7 element 'G' lens, has a lens mounted light cell, but the LC is much more cumbersome in other respects. To use the manual exposure system of the SP using the viewfinder EV scale, firstly set the shutter speed appropriate to the shot situation - bright outdoors might be 1/125 - 1/250 or lowlight 1/15 - 1/30 where a tripod should be used. Then, pointing the camera at the subject scene take the EV reading indicated in the scale at the top of the viewfinder, transfering this reading to the window just to the front of the fstop ring. You are ready to shoot and hopefully you haven't forgotten to manually set the appropriate film speed on the dial at the right hand side of the body.
6 months on and I now have some results using Ilford FP4/125. Everything I had expected with that 'je ne sais quoi' that differentiates real film photography from digital. Like the 7SII, the SP has become quite sought after and an example in good condition and working order can command upwards of $280.00, but worth it and will go on shooting for years. An investment which will appreciate.